First-time visitors to Astek probably step in for the same reason most people convene at a reputable Istanbul meyhane: Good conversation in a cozy setting over a few cold glasses of rakı, together with fresh melon and white cheese, and perhaps a hot appetizer or two once the anise-based spirit has succeeded in seriously stimulating the appetite.
And while one is unlikely to be displeased with any of Astek’s fine offerings, the head waiter and manager Mehmet Akkök is the reason why regulars return. Mehmet Bey brings to the table an exuberance and keen sense of professionalism that comes with years of service in the sector he loves.
Unfortunately common in Istanbul, overly pushy service can ruin the vibe of one’s rakı sofrası and spoil the taste of even the best mezes, as we regrettably experienced on a recent trip to an old haunt (which we will not name in the hope that this was a one-time thing). Though our table was in the process of running up a hefty tab, the waiter kept stopping by and asking us if we’d like a salad or an appetizer or another grilled fish. We felt pressured and agitated. Our buzz was killed, our mood clouded like a glass of watered-down rakı.
A good meyhane waiter is carefully attentive without stressing the table out: He knows exactly when to ask diners if they would like to proceed with hot appetizers or a main course, and doesn’t revert to a vacuum-salesman’s pitch on behalf of a house salad. The urge to gather over a rakı sofrası and unwind by sharing personal and collective troubles has only deepened in 2017, a year of upheaval in Turkey, and the last thing one needs is the waiter harshing their mellow. Fortunately at Astek, this is entirely out of the question.
Astek (the name has nothing to do with Mesoamerican empires but rather is a play on the term “one and only”) has served the Pangaltı/Kurtuluş area since 1986, and has built a reputation on well-crafted meze and hot appetizers, reasonable prices, and above all Mehmet Bey’s superb service. You’ll be hard pressed to find it empty even early in the week, and we’d recommend a reservation after Wednesday. Divided between a narrow dining room allotted for non-smokers and a room in the back where smoking is permitted (large windows provide ample ventilation), the place fills up quick.
“We try to do what we can without offending anyone,” Mehmet said, sharing anecdotes of accommodating late arrivals and fitting in as many people as possible via creative seating arrangements.
The 38-year-old Mehmet Bey has worked at Astek since he was 15; he has made the place his domain, though he harbors no authoritarian complex. He simply loves his job and is always at the top of his game. He even calls to check in on his infrequent day off.
“I rarely take a day off. Maybe two or three times in a year!” Mehmet Bey exclaimed. Hailing from the Black Sea province of Ordu, best known for producing a serious chunk of the world’s hazelnuts, Mehmet Bey still works even when he’s on vacation. “I go to the village and collect hazelnuts,” he said with a smile.
The last thing one needs when gathering around a rakı sofrası is the waiter harshing their mellow.
When asked about Astek’s specialities, Mehmet Bey immediately named the paçanga böreği. We weren’t surprised to then learn that Mehmet Bey himself makes the flaky, savory pastry, a sublime, melty configuration of pastırma (dried, cured beef) and kaşar cheese. Imagine a Michelin chef taking it upon herself to reconstruct the Hot Pocket – it’s that good. We try not to leave without having a portion or two.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We always start out a meal at Astek with fresh sliced kavun, the green melon that manages to be juicer and more memorable than the best honeydew we enjoyed elsewhere. Followed are the dependably delicious cold meze, namely köpoğlu (chopped zucchini and eggplant swimming in a garlicky yogurt sauce), lahana dolması (rice-stuffed cabbage rolls) and peynirli biber dolması (spicy pickled green and red peppers filled with soft white cheese).
Right when we think Astek’s excellent meze selections are a bit on the traditional side of things, Mehmet whips out an on-the-house plate of soslu patates, a house special of thinly-sliced potatoes that are fried and then marinated in a light yet flavorful sauce. They are served room temperature but never soggy.
Expect a relaxing meal at Astek to end with a complimentary fruit plate courtesy of Mehmet Bey and a choice of either Turkish coffee or shot of liqueur (mint or almond-flavored). These days we find some evenings call for both, and Mehmet Bey doesn’t bat an eye. He will then accompany you every step of the way to the door, shaking your hand, beaming his twinkling, bespectacled smile and giving you his card even if he’s done so before.
Not that we ever need it, because we always know where he can be found.
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